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The Retro Wife

What to do? One solution is to deny the need for broader solutions or for any kind of sisterly help. It’s every woman for herself, and may the best one win. “I don’t, I think, have, sort of, the militant drive and, sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that,” said Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in an interview with PBS, in which she declined to label herself a “feminist.” “I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word.” (I went to Stanford, worked at Google, got pregnant, and still became the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, she seemed to say. If you’re smart enough, so can you.) But ­others, as you may have read, believe it’s time for women to resume the good fight. In her much-discussed Atlantic piece, Anne-Marie Slaughter, by profession a policy wonk (now at Princeton, formerly at the State Department), calls for better workplace programs: more parental leave, more part-time and flextime options. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, in her new book, Lean In, acknowledges the need for better policies, but argues that the new revolution needs to start with women themselves, that what’s needed to equalize U.S. workplaces is a generation of women tougher, stronger, wilier, more honest about their ambition, more strategic, and more determined to win than American women currently are.

But what if all the fighting is just too much? That is, what if a woman isn’t earning Facebook money but the salary of a social worker? Or what if her husband works 80 hours a week, and her kid is acting out at school, and she’s sick of the perpetual disarray in the closets and the endless battles over who’s going to buy the milk and oversee the homework? Maybe most important, what if a woman doesn’t have Sandberg-Slaughter-Mayer-level ambition but a more modest amount that neither drives nor defines her?

Reading The Feminine Mystique now, one is struck by the white-hot flame of Betty Friedan’s professional hunger, which made her into a prophet and a pioneer. But it blinded her as well: She presumed that all her suburban-housewife sisters felt as imprisoned as she did and that the gratification she found in her work was attainable for all. That was never true, of course; the revolution that Friedan helped to spark both liberated women and allowed countless numbers of them to experience financial pressure and the profound dissatisfactions of the workaday grind. More women than ever earn some or all of the money their family lives on. But today, in the tumultuous 21st-century economy, depending on a career as a path to self-actualization can seem like a sucker’s bet.

Meanwhile, what was once feminist blasphemy is now conventional wisdom: Generally speaking, mothers instinctively want to devote themselves to home more than fathers do. (Even Sandberg admits it. “Are there characteristics inherent in sex differences that make women more nurturing and men more assertive?” she asks. “Quite possibly.”) If feminism is not only about creating an equitable society but also a means to fulfillment for individual women, and if the rewards of working are insufficient and uncertain, while the tug of motherhood is inexorable, then a new calculus can take hold: For some women, the solution to resolving the long-running tensions between work and life is not more parent-friendly offices or savvier career moves but the full embrace of domesticity. “The feminist revolution started in the workplace, and now it’s happening at home,” says Makino. “I feel like in today’s society, women who don’t work are bucking the convention we were raised with … Why can’t we just be girls? Why do we have to be boys and girls at the same time?” She and the legions like her offer a silent rejoinder to Sandberg’s manifesto, raising the possibility that the best way for some mothers (and their loved ones) to have a happy life is to make home their highest achievement.

“What these women feel is that the trade-offs now between working and not working are becoming more and more unsustainable,” says Stacy Morrison, editor-in-chief of BlogHer, a network of 3,000 blogs for and by women. “The conversation we hear over and over again is this: ‘The sense of calm and control that we feel over our lives is so much better than what is currently on offer in our culture.’ And they’re not wrong.” The number of stay-at-home mothers rose incrementally between 2010 and 2011, for the first time since the downturn of 2008. While staying home with children remains largely a privilege of the affluent (the greatest number of America’s SAHMs live in families with incomes of $100,000 a year or more), some of the biggest increases have been among younger mothers, ages 25 to 35, and those whose family incomes range from $75,000 to $100,000 a year.